Rethinking How Science Is Seen

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Rethinking How Science Is Seen

Credit NASA

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Photographs in and about science have long influenced the trajectory of discovery and of public opinion and policy, too. In 1948, Fred Hoyle, a British astronomer, made an astonishing prediction: “Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from the outside, is available . . . a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.” Two decades later, NASA photographs such as The Blue Marble (1972) — one of the most widely reproduced images ever — did just that, startling us with dramatically new perspectives on our place in the broader scheme of things.

Proof of that power was evident this past Earth Day, April 22nd, when scientists, educators and advocates participated in a March for Science on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and in hundreds of cities worldwide. Hoping for visibility, they were the willing subjects of images and enthusiastic makers of them. Pictures from that day — of clever protest signs held aloft and crowds that, from above, looked like cells swirling — reflected both concern and science’s growing presence in daily life. Widely shared and seen, images of the demonstrations called attention to proposed federal budget cuts which, if implemented, would endanger research, dampen innovation and slow progress on issues like health care, climate change and space exploration.

Early on, scientists embraced photography as an indefatigable medium capable of seeing more, and more clearly, than they ever could. But if the most highly valued photographs were single images made in the fraction of a second and left untouched, photographic images are now often shot in bulk and computationally adjusted to easily extract more data. M.I.T. researchers, trying to visualize the movement of light, have developed a camera that shoots a trillion frames a…

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